The Melungeons: A New Path
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The Melungeons: A New Path
By Brent Kennedy
The long-awaited DNA results are in and as many of us have maintained, the Melungeons are indeed a mixture of all races and many ethnic groups. The DNA samples in this study represent the oldest, most established Melungeon male and female lines in the Hancock County (Tennessee) community, and the Wise County (Virginia) community. Extensive genealogies for these two populations — and those sampled — are known and documented. Respected members of each community assisted in the collection of the samples, and these samples can be examined separately (by community) and compared against one another.
In addition to Native American (approximately 5% of the sample), African (approximately 5%) and European (approximately 83% of the sample, but representing Europeans from north to south), the study also showed approximately 7% of the samples matching populations in Turkey, Syria and northern India. In other words, the surviving genes from Middle Eastern and East Indian ancestors are in equal proportion to those of Native Americans and Africans. My gut feeling is that the original, seventeenth-century percentages of all three groups (i.e., African, Native American, and Middle Eastern/East Indian) were higher than what we’re seeing today. Time, admixture, and out-movement of some of our darker cousins into other minority groups have likely lowered the genetic traces of their earlier presence. But enough of them were there to still be traceable among the Melungeons of today. The long discounted Mediterranean and Middle Eastern heritages are irrefutably there.
Very importantly, this study is only a sampling. It’s impossible to get to every single bonafied Melungeon descendant. Consequently, all this — or any other — DNA study can do is CONFIRM heritages — it cannot dismiss them. But via the genetic sequences found, it can give us a hint at the ethnic make-up of the earliest Melungeons. In this regard, I am still keeping an open mind regarding the theories that are out there. Four hundred years has allowed a great deal of time for population admixture and each family has its own distinct cultural and ethnic legacy. The original people referred to as Melungeons may have been Africans, or East Indians, or Native Americans, or Turks, or Gypsies or Portuguese or whatever. Not one of us knows with absolute certainty. What we do know is that very early on these various populations combined into one people known as Melungeons.
As those who attended Fourth Union heard, from both Dr. Jones and Dr. Morris, this finding is incredibly important from a healthcare standpoint alone. Native Americans, Europeans, and African Americans can — and do — carry Middle Eastern and Mediterranean diseases. It takes very few individuals in a founding population to have a dramatic impact on a gene pool. African Americans and Native Americans can – and do – have Familial Mediterranean Fever. White Americans can — and do — have Sickle Cell Anemia. Having the genetic and genealogical data to explain why is critical to improving healthcare.
The study also underscores another important aspect of the origins debate: nearly all theories are correct to some extent. The only ones wrong are those that have been exclusive in their premise. The long-standing academic position that Melungeons are a “tri-racial isolate” consisting of strictly northern Europeans, strictly West Africans, and Native Americans is incorrect. Those unwilling to add any other ethnic group to the mix have been wrong. This is what I stated in my book and have maintained for years: we are mixed and highly inclusive, and that inclusiveness includes Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and East Indian.
We should also keep in mind that these non Native-American ethnic groups could have arrived in a myriad of ways, and likely did. Those who have read my book or heard me speak know that this has always been my position. I have never been wed to any theory of arrival – what I have been wed to is, simply, arrival. Santa Elena and its outlying forts continue to help explain how some of these people — and their genes — might have gotten here. There were Gypsies and Conversos (e.g., Jews, Arabs, Berbers, East Indians, Turks, Moors, Africans, etc.) at Santa Elena who, even as “good Catholic Spaniards” and “good Catholic Portuguese” would have carried their ancestral genes from their ancestral homelands. The finding of Turkish genes (both male and female lines) in the Melungeon population seems to indicate full families, so Santa Elena remains an origin possibility for some of the Melungeon ancestors. There were no women with Drake’s Turks and the Turks themselves weren’t sending families here, at least as far as I know.
The British, however, were doing so. Turkish and Armenian families were documentably present in Jamestown, serving the English colonists as indentured servants and artisans. Whatever the case, historians are best equipped to determine HOW the genes arrived. Finally, East Indians were brought to these shores in significant numbers from the early 1600s on and Romany (Gypsies) are also well documented in Virginia and the Carolinas during the same time period. There was, simply said, no shortage of the people necessary to provide the genetic proof to back up the Melungeon claims of origin.
I don’t yet know my full family DNA results but when I do I, and hopefully others, will share the information in an effort to help solve the roles specific families have played in the Melungeon odyssey. But I do know one sequence and this single piece of information is enlightening. My Mitochondrial DNA, which I inherited from my Mother, matches the Siddis of India. The dark-skinned Siddis likely originated from what today is Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia — sub-Saharan, east Africa. They were transported to India in a variety of ways, most not so pleasant, and formed a major component of what became known as the Untouchable Caste. Their lives — and the life of my ancestral Mother — must have been horribly difficult. But she survived long enough to have at least one daughter and that daughter did likewise. And generation after generation this original Ethiopian girl’s DNA was passed along until, in 1950, it came to me.
How my particular East Indian ancestor made her way to America remains unclear. It may have been as the wife of a sixteenth-century New World Portuguese settler (the sixteenth-century Portuguese soldiers married northern Indian women by the thousands). Or she may have been the spouse of a seventeenth-century British ex-patriot, or an East Indian female sent to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. Still again, she may have arrived on these shores as a Rom (or so-called, Gypsy) girl. Many Romany share the Siddi mitochondria and the Romany-related surnames that follow this particular mitochondrial line in my family (Mullins, Bennett, Rose, etc.) would seem supportive of a Romany origin. Regardless of her mode of arrival to the New World, what is clear is that she –and her genes — did indeed make their way here. My Mother and I are living proof of this woman’s legacy. All this to say that had a young, sub-Saharan east African girl never lived, never been transported to India, and never had a daughter of her own, I wouldn’t be here.
So, what is the meaning of all this? For me, I can sum it up this way:
While I am likely — and proudly — of northern European heritage, I am also of Siddi heritage. And I am equally kin to the Scotsman tilling his field outside Glasgow, the Chickahominy Indian fighting to keep tribal pride alive, and the various east Africans at one another’s throats in Somalia. The Israelis and Palestinians dealing out death on a daily basis, the Appalachian blue grass banjo picker, the Indian and Pakistani soldiers staring one another down in Kashmir, and — yes — the down-beaten Untouchable in the poorest ghettos of southern India are also family. All are literally, not just figuratively, MY people. Genocide in the Balkans, earthquakes in Turkey, riots in Argentina, and repressive regimes in Afghanistan are no longer faraway occurrences of little consequence. In every tragedy on this Earth, a relative is suffering. And this leads me to a deeper understanding of just what the Melungeon story really means, and the transition that I must make.
We in Appalachia are known for our powerful storytelling tradition. Beginning today we have the opportunity to tell the most important story in our history — the story of the Oneness of Mankind and how this Oneness is exemplified in the Appalachian heartland. The irony that we in Appalachia and those whose roots lie in these mountains — long considered the lowest of the low — could play a role in World ethnic harmony is staggering in its implications. But it’s not a pipe dream. We can send a powerful message to all people everywhere, that:
No place, no region, no human being is too small, too remote, or too insignificant to justify dismissal. We are all of the same flesh and each of us matters.
From this point on, our mission lies in spreading this message beyond these mountains. And we need to start at the earliest levels of teaching — our elementary schools — as well before the seeds of racism and hate have been sown.
Beginning this week, I commit myself to this mission. The time has come for me to leave the historical and origins research, further DNA analysis, and other academic pursuits to those more qualified. My task was to be a catalyst — an instigator.
Fourteen years ago, very few people cared about the Melungeons or any other mixed race population for that matter. That deeply bothered me, as I felt that these various populations deserved more attention from academia and, indeed, had played a far larger role in building this nation than they’d ever been given credit for. Placing them all into a box labeled “tri-racial isolate” and closing the lid seemed a grave injustice. I wrote my book to force the acknowledgment of our multi-racial communities and, in a sense, to help bring them out of the closet in which academia had shoved them. I believe I’ve contributed to an increased awareness and, hopefully, an increased pride. The level of interest and the sheer volume of books and articles being written today is enormous compared to the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was my dream and I am now confident that this interest will not dissipate.
There are a myriad of talented researchers exploring a variety of Melungeon related issues. Dozens of younger scholars are joining the older established writers and researchers in the search for Melungeon origins and the meaning of that search. Over the past decade, people like Jack Goins, Manuel Mira, Eloy Gallegos, James Nickens, Pat Elder, Mike Nassau, Wayne Winkler, Tim Hashaw, Carroll and Betty Goyne, and Virginia DeMarce have added substantial knowledge to what we might soon begin calling “Melungeon Studies.” Each of these individuals deserves our gratitude and our praise. My long-standing hope has been, and continues to be, that all those researching this important topic can somehow pull together. That we acknowledge our differing opinions on historical matters, but that we come to recognize our shared commitment to (1) caring for these people and their culture, and (2) abhorring racism in any form. These shared commitments far outweigh the debate over who showed up first, where the name came from, or what color John Doe might have been. Perhaps my greatest disappointment over the years has rested in the inability or unwillingness of what should have been fellow travelers on a very bumpy road to travel together. It’s not too late.
In closing, I’ve done all that I can do for those who came before us. From this point on, I plan on devoting my efforts to making this Earth a better place for the living. If I’ve learned anything in this nearly fifteen-year journey, it’s the sobering reality that human prejudice exists everywhere — even within the very groups that have been the target of such prejudice. The heated debates over who can — or cannot be — a Melungeon are reminiscent of the earlier debates over who can — or cannot be — white. I know we don’t intend it to be this way, but this is what invariably happens when we humans insist on categorizing and refining human ethnicity. It’s this same mindset that, when carried to an extreme, results in prejudice, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide. “Race” is cultural, not genetic. I’ve been accused time and again of “diluting” Melungeon ethnicity to the point of blurring the boundaries and, in the words of one critic, “making them related to everybody.” This is precisely what I intended to do and the DNA study results have supported this contention. That’s the underlying beauty of this story, and to miss that point is symptomatic of the too narrow focus that inevitably leads to ethnic tensions.
And so, what energy and time I have will be expended in bringing people together wherever and whenever I can. In teaching and engaging in projects that can impact how human beings — and especially our children — view their fellow human beings. That we are not just figuratively– but literally — one human family. From Africa and India, to Turkey, Portugal, and the United States of America, we are one race. Where I can make a difference in helping others to understand this, I will. Where I cannot, I’ll try.
And I pledge to live by our Melungeon creed, “One People, All Colors.”
I thank God for an amazing fourteen years of Chapter One and, God-willing, at least that many more for Chapter Two.
Of further interest to readers is Mr. Kennedy’s book “The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America.”